Puberty is much more than just a time of biological overdrive, propelled by sexual maturation. Progress in development science has considerably broadened the perspective of this critical maturing milestone.
"We've moved beyond thinking about puberty as just raging hormones," said Carol Worthman, professor of anthropology at Emory University. "Major advances in understanding brain development clearly show that the sociological and psychological effects during puberty are just as important as the hormones."
What is needed now, Worthman claims as the lead author of a new article, is to integrate this concept into more comprehensive research models. The Journal of Research on Adolescence published the paper, in which important theories and methods are discussed that are relevant for puberty studies.
"Puberty was once considered the biological process of the development of teenagers and adolescence was considered the cultural process," Worthman says. "We want to raise awareness that bracketing research in this way is no longer a useful approach."
For decades, researchers have focused on improving the health of babies & children, resulting in substantial reductions in infant mortality worldwide.
Although babies & children are labeled as cute and positive, full of possibilities, adolescents are more often seen as problems. They are generally less studied, says Worthman, although the second decade of life is a critical time when the risks are high for the development of mental illness, substance abuse and the escalation of injuries. And what happens during puberty, she adds, affects health and well-being throughout life.
The world population is now bathed with young people aged 10 to 19, who today have more than 1.2 billion, or 17 percent of humanity. These young people must cope with finding their way into adulthood amid huge, rapid social transformations.
"Due to the global slowdown in fertility, this is probably the largest cohort of young people we will ever see," says Worthman. "If we ever get serious about helping adolescents reach their full potential, this is the moment."
In her own research, Worthman uses a biocultural approach to conduct comparative interdisciplinary research into human development. Samatha Dockray, a co-author of the University College Cork article, studies psychobiological mechanisms to understand their effects on adolescents' health and behavior. The third co-author, Kristine Marceau of Purdue University, integrates genetics, prenatal risk, neuroendocrine development and the family environment into her development research.
The article outlines minimally invasive methods to study different aspects of puberty. For example, hair clippings and fingernails can be used to track stress levels and hormones over time. Changes in the microbiome, immune function, and brain are other critical aspects of puberty that can be measured, along with cognition, behavior, and ecological contexts.
"By taking advantage of new methods and working in interdisciplinary teams, development scientists can explore more questions about the development and well-being of adolescents in more integrated ways," says Worthman.
The assessment document is part of a special section on puberty, published by the Journal of Research on Adolescence. Topics covered include emerging genetic-ecological complexity of puberty, the role of puberty in the developing brain, how puberty affects health and well-being throughout life and the need to prevent puberty in the subconscious population.